I was born into a spectacular moment in the ascent of science.
Now half a century later, I fear I am living in an America bent on rejecting science.
I am struggling to understand that.
I was born in January 1969, just months before the landing on the moon, in a cotton town, Huntsville, Alabama, that had been transformed into the “Rocket City” during the space race.
I grew up immersed in southern culture and Deep South evangelicalism with an unusual helping of science and technology on the side.
Rockets, astronauts and space exploration colored our world.
All of the dads on my street were engineers. The nerd look wasn’t a caricature; it was an apt description of our fathers. They all had mechanical pencils and calculators in their shirt pockets.
We had Redstone Arsenal decals on our cars. Our brand of patriotism was linked to pride in American scientific and technological advances and our city’s role in it.
My first paid job was unlocking the gates on the arsenal for tour buses visiting the Skylab mock-up and the buoyancy simulator where astronauts trained.
I was in a nationally televised commercial with astronaut Wally Schirra filmed at the Space and Rocket Center for Tang instant breakfast drink, originally created for astronauts.
Even my church literally reflected the Space Age. First Baptist Church expanded rapidly in the 1950s as rocket science drove the city’s growth. A new church building was completed in 1966, just as American astronauts were first orbiting the earth.
The futuristic mosaic of the “Cosmic Christ” that spans the entire exterior of the sanctuary sparked a widely known nickname – the “Egg-Beater Jesus Church.” The sanctuary’s stained-glass windows – massive, modern and colorful explosions – depict the moment the galaxies came into being.
A significant number of the church’s deacons and many of my Sunday School teachers and youth leaders were NASA or Department of Defense engineers and scientists.
I didn’t grow up with a dichotomy between faith and science. Physicists and engineers who calculated rocket trajectories on Monday didn’t have to feign scientific ignorance on Sunday to be faithful Bible-believers.
The way it all seeped into my soul and my bones in that church convinced me that scientific inquiry was a venture into the magnificence of God’s creation, an extension of living in awe of God and Creation in all of its glory.
We studied the Bible, and it was central to our faith, yet “young earth” creationism was foreign to me.
I had teachers who studied space rocks on weekdays. They didn’t try to teach the creation story through a fundamentalist/literalist lens on Sundays.
Today, plenty of engineers and scientists still fill the First Baptist pews. Huntsville has also become a vital center of biotech research and high-tech robotic manufacturing.
According to Forbes Magazine, Huntsville ranks 25th on the list of cities with the highest levels of education in the country, much of it geared toward science, technology and medicine.
In 2016, Donald Trump ran as an anti-science candidate, dismissing climate science and frequently claiming to understand science more than experts in many fields.
Still, the majority of people in my highly educated hometown voted for him, and they seem prepared to do so again. Trump’s assault on science seems to have had little effect on their embrace of him.
Huntsville’s United States congressman since 2011, Rep. Mo Brooks, is as anti-science as they come. On the House floor in 2018, Brooks posited that ocean levels are not rising due to climate change but because rocks and soil fall into the water causing displacement.
Since the pandemic began, President Trump has defied medical science, repeatedly calling COVID-19 a hoax, even as tens of thousands of Americans have died. He has fought his own experts’ evidence-based strategies to slow COVID’s spread – to the point that he is now infected himself.
To people suffering the devastation of forest fires in California, Trump opined that the climate will just “cool down” because “science doesn’t know.” It is well documented that his administration has censored and pressured many government scientists and scientific agencies.
Yet, polling strongly suggests that Trump will win the majority vote in the highly educated Huntsville metropolitan area again this November.
The embrace of scientific inquiry that once made us proud and propelled the moon shot seems to have been cast aside. Even the science that could save our very lives is ignored, and people seem willing to embrace that as well.
Baffling incoherence. What makes highly educated people push aside facts, lives and intellectual honesty?
A stone grows in the pit of my stomach.
Flashback to 2017. It was in Huntsville, Alabama, to great applause from a huge crowd, that President Trump first derided Black NFL players who knelt during the national anthem, using offensive language and calling for them to be fired.
The warm memory of growing up in a church where faith and science could co-exist turns ominously cold.
As an adult, I came to realize it was an unusual gift to grow up within southern evangelicalism that allowed for both faith and intellectual coherence regarding science.
Was I so mesmerized by the galaxies depicted in stained glass and the Cosmic Christ mosaic that I failed to recognize perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of my church?
At 51, I am trying to reconcile my hometown’s embrace of an anti-science leader with the faith I was taught. It just does not compute.
The summer of 2020 has laid bare for me more truth about people than I frankly wanted to know.
In November, Alabama voters seem likely to elect anti-science ex-football coach Tommy Tuberville instead of Sen. Doug Jones, an experienced lawmaker and former federal prosecutor who is one of the greatest civil rights litigators the state has ever known.
It now seems it was easy to throw science and intellectual honesty overboard, giving priority to something more important and more insidious, whether it is acknowledged or not.
Actually, the most defining thing about the church I grew up in was that it was all white. And most of the congregation was well off by any standard.
My mental snapshots of my childhood church are always images of the front facade. The Cosmic Christ mosaic faces Governors Drive.
What was always on the other side of the iconic Rocket City church when I was growing up?
The public housing projects known as Councill Courts, where 100% of the residents were Black, all enduring poverty and racial oppression right behind the Cosmic Christ.
We worshipped in a church where we created a beautiful Jesus that only faced one direction. And we ignored the place that the Jesus of our Scriptures was most likely to be found.
I now realize neither the relationship between faith and science, nor the reconciliation of the two, were the hard questions.
How and if to cross the street immediately behind the church were the big questions.
And they are the ones we didn’t ask.
An Alabama native and mother of three sons, Hiley has a BA in history, a Master of Divinity, and is a former Kellogg Foundation National Leadership Fellow. She lives near Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, Todd Heifner.